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A City’s Assets, Reimagined

A trash truck or a streetlight has a basic function, but in a digital age they can be so much more, adding value outside of their core purposes.

A Los Angeles streetlight that doubles as an EV charging station
A Los Angeles streetlight that doubles as an electic-vehicle charging station. The city views curbside charging as integral to reaching multi-family neighborhoods that might have difficulty installing their own chargers. (Photo: Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting)
Every semester, in one of my classes at the Harvard Kennedy School, I present a slide with several familiar pictures: a trash truck, a streetlight, a stretch of highway and a sidewalk. I ask students to identify what they see. Of course, everyone first nominates the obvious, but the more creative students see, respectively: a rolling sensor platform; a vertical mall for digital solutions; easements for solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations; and a multi-use space for walking, commercial deliveries, shared bike lanes and outdoor cafés.

The digital revolution will only reach its potential when those responsible for public asset management reimagine their assets.

I recently spoke to Miguel Sangalang, executive director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting. His previous position, as deputy mayor of L.A., gave him broad responsibility across city government and now enables him to constantly examine the city’s physical assets for how they can add value both inside and outside of their original core purposes. In our conversation, Sangalang first describes the fundamental responsibilities of managing 220,000 streetlights connected by an underground network of some 9,000 miles of conduit and 27,000 miles of copper wire. Then he quickly expands the discussion with a broader view of the assets under his purview.

For example, streetlights, because of their connection to electrical power and their locations on the right of way, present ancillary uses. Originally designed for one purpose, they now can become locations for air-quality sensors, places to attach communications technology such as 5G transmitters, and providers of data that furthers curb and sidewalk management. Sangalang is creating an inventory of characteristics which, to realize their potential, need to be formally offered to other city departments and residents. In essence, he is offering poles, pipes and power as a service.

This type of asset management requires imagination. And it requires that the property be explicitly evaluated through an equity filter. For example, in some wealthier L.A. neighborhoods the streetlights are half the distance from each other than they are in less-affluent communities. This disparity raises issues beyond public safety. Since these assets also can support curbside electric vehicle charging, for example, solving the disparity imbalance becomes even more urgent since the city views curbside charging as integral to reaching multifamily neighborhoods that might have difficulty installing their own chargers. If that issue is not addressed, the installation of EV-supporting infrastructure will compound historical unfairness.

One way to address historic inequities and prevent repeating them is through careful mapping of asset inventory, as this serves to visualize the issue. The comprehensive spatial visualization of all assets provides a gateway to new uses. As Sangalang puts it, “For us to be able to understand some of those geospatial nuances and then compare those differences, we needed to visualize the assets more comprehensively on maps in order to support equity and new uses.”

What does a city need to invest in its infrastructure to position it for the future and serve multiple needs? It needs a list of assets situated with good GIS visualization and overlaid with other information, such as neighborhood conditions. It needs a cross-agency working group with a person in charge of managing the effort. Fundamentally, cities need to change their definition of the practice known as “value engineering,” where a capital project is scrutinized to find ways to increase its value to the city and its residents and decrease its cost. That practice and scope needs to be expanded to look at not just better ways to save money through design modifications but also to value the assets’ characteristics for other purposes.

In my Kennedy School classroom, I ask students to see opportunity in trash trucks that can be equipped to measure pavement smoothness as they roll through neighborhoods, and as platforms on which views of the curb and street can spot better ways to recycle or even identify graffiti. We discuss the LinkNYC kiosks that replaced the old payphone pedestals as structures that can support free street-level gigabit wireless service.

In this discovery process, roadside easements are no longer viewed merely as liabilities that require maintenance, but thanks to GIS mapping that identifies sun and shade, they become locations for solar power generation. Multi-use assets include sewer pipes that become conduits for sensors that provide early warning signs of COVID-19 outbreaks. And when one looks closely, they can see assets that double as their own preventative maintenance service: buses that warn about impending exhaust or brake problems, or bridges that through vibration monitors issue requests for their own checkups or repairs.

So much value lies ahead, to be unlocked by digital tools. Success equals the sum of the assets’ characteristics times the uses discovered through imagination. With this formula, the public will get its money’s worth.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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